Frank Bruni’s “Born Round”

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Iconic male food writers like A.J. Liebling and R.W. Apple were large men; they flaunted their girth in ways that their female counterparts (M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Ruth Reichl) did not. Their weight helped them cultivate an aura of power and authority; it’s easy to imagine them sitting in a brown leather chair, patting their tummies after a large meal, smoking a very expensive cigar and sipping a very fine Brandy. But to quote the Monkees: that was then and this is now.

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Omakase at Sushi Yasuda

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Craig’s birthday has always been an excellent excuse to splurge at a high-end restaurant, the kind of place I couldn’t justify going to the rest of the year. Usually I pick a place that piques my curiosity, or a place I’ve been dying to try for a long time. Last year we visited Momofuku Ko, the year before–and it was quite a year–Per Se and, the year before that, Blue Hill.

This year, it finally occurred to me: all this time, I’d been choosing places I really wanted to go to without really factoring Craig into the equation. Sure, he loves food and loved all these meals, but would he have picked these places himself? Probably not (reading over my shoulder, he says: “I would’ve picked Blue Hill.”) Regardless, there’s one kind of food that Craig absolutely loves and that I just enjoy which, if this birthday was going to be about him, I would have to pursue: that food is sushi.

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Frank Bruni Responds

I’m deeply flattered that Frank Bruni took the time to respond to my dress code manifesto on his Diner’s Journal blog (to read his response, click here; to read my original post, click here.) He begins by calling me a “lovely, thoughtful guy” (woohoo!) and then systematically dismantles my argument. I appreciate the logic of his approach and admit that, rationally speaking, it’s unreasonable to expect restaurants like Per Se or Le Bernardin to change their dress codes if customers are willing to (and often happy to) oblige. The best, part, though are the comments; so many comments, in fact, that Bruni wrote a follow-up post to highlight his favorites. My favorite comment concerns a patron at the French Laundry who, uncomfortably hot, removes his jacket only to have the maitre’d come over and say that jackets are required. “I replied that I was uncomfortable in it because of the heat. He replied that he doesn’t want me to be uncomfortable and asked for the jacket, which I gave him. After that, all the diners came in and noticed I wasn’t wearing a jacket. I wonder how they felt?”

As Bruni says in his follow-up, “A dress code is, indeed, arbitrary…But the code has to say something, and I don’t think there’s any doubt that the existence of a dress code is, on balance, going to lead to more formally dressed patrons than the absence of a code.”

Clearly, though, it’s a subject that inspires passion and I think that’s because there’s a sensitive link between what we wear and who we are. Seen through the prism of identity, a dress code drums up issues of class, gender, maybe even race. It’s a delicate conversation, and an important one, and I’m excited to be a part of it.

My Dinner with Frank Bruni

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[Note: Frank Bruni did not pose for that picture.]

The dinner was set for Monday, October 22nd, and the e-mail came on Thursday, October 18th. It said: “We’re going to check out ___… at 8:30 p.m., reservation for four under surname ___.” (E-mail’s been censored for obvious reasons.) Then, on the 21st, another e-mail came with the subject: “Monday night location and slight time change.” A new place was named for 8:45 and the instruction was given: “They don’t take reservations, so first person there should just check in and give a name, any name other than mine.”

Me being an anxious, obsessive person, I arrived at said location 15 minutes too early and was stunned to find that the place was closed. How could this be? Did I get the place right? Were there two places with this name and was I at the wrong one? What if I got the night wrong? The time wrong? I did all the research I could on my cellphone and concluded that this had to be the place and that I was, indeed, here on the right night at the right time. As if on cue, Friend of Bruni #1 arrived and introduced herself. She too was surprised that the place was closed but assured me that we were in the right spot. The street was a bit empty and soon a man came walking across the street and Friend of Bruni #1 called to him.

“Is that Frank?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “That’s (Friend of Bruni #2.)”

“Oh,” I said, embarrassed. But what did I have to be embarrassed about? Isn’t it Frank Bruni’s job to be unrecognizable?

I met Friend #2 and then, a few moments later, another man came walking across the street.

“It’s closed,” called Friend #1.

The man laughed. By process of elimination I knew who he was but I almost couldn’t believe it: he seemed so young, so calm, and–dare I say it–skinny that I couldn’t believe this was the food critic for The New York Times.

I put out my hand. “Hi,” I said and then added, unnecessarily: “I’m Adam.”

He smiled and shook. “I’m Frank,” he said, also unnecessarily, and with that I’d officially met the city’s most powerful critic.

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It Matters

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Frank Bruni told a story on his blog the other day about ordering iced tea at a restaurant only to have the waiter say they’d run out. “How do you run out of iced tea?” he queried. “I ask that question not snidely but earnestly, because I know that this blog has readers in the restaurant business, and I’d be curious for an answer.”

The answers he got were vicious. “Its so hard being a privelidged [sic] customer at an upscale restaurant,” wrote Jason C. “Oh, that I had these problems,” wrote Anna. “If the restaurant has run out of whatever, just order something else and get a life,” wrote VG.

The thrust of these arguments can be summed up by Wanda: “If you want to be in serious debate, read the front page.”

The front page, presumably, is filled with things that matter: soldiers dying in Iraq, terrorists plotting attacks in Germany, Senators seeking sex in bathrooms. These readers are outraged that Frank can be so frivolous: why raise a stink over something so minor? Who cares if the restaurant runs out of iced tea–there are more important things happening in the world!

It’s logic like this that explains why so many people in America eat so badly: “Who cares what I put in my stomach as long as I eat?” It’s a means to an end, a bodily function–food goes in like it comes out–and it’s not a thing to be taken seriously. Hence the outrage on Bruni’s blog.

But what are we fighting for when we fight for freedom? What are we protecting as we sniff out the terrorists? Is it just a matter of life and death? Or is it something more? Aren’t we trying to preserve and maintain the things that make living life worth living?

Sure, whether or not a restaurant runs out of iced tea seems minor in the grand scheme of things, but isn’t that true of anything that’s not a matter of life and death? Isn’t it more a question of which pleasures we deem important and which we don’t? For example, I bet many of the people raging about Bruni’s lack of perspective had strong opinions about the final episode of The Sopranos. Maybe some of them wrote a blog post about how David Chase ruined the franchise, didn’t deliver the proverbial “iced tea” if you will. Isn’t that just as irrelevant to front page news as anything else? Don’t we spend most of our days worrying and thinking about the little things–what to wear, where to eat, how to get there–than we do thinking about the big things? And isn’t that ok?

I think it is. I think these things matter because these are the things that give life substance. If it were your last meal and you were craving iced tea and you went to a restaurant and you ordered it and they didn’t have it, you’d be pretty upset. You’d wonder the same thing Frank wondered: “How do you run out of iced tea?”

And then you’d shrug, order a bottomless martini and drink yourself to oblivion.

Why Annisa Should Have Three Stars

Earlier this year, Keith McNally–owner of Balthazar, Pastis and the newly opened Morandi–wrote an open letter to New York Times food critic Frank Bruni accusing him of sexism. McNally wrote: “Bruni has never given a female chef in Manhattan anything more than one star, ever….On the two momentous occasions that Bruni saw fit to hand a woman two stars (both outside of Manhattan) he flatly refused to mention that the chef was a woman. This is peculiar, because when the chef is a man Bruni often makes quite a song and dance about it.”

Most people, myself included, found McNally’s rant to be misguided: as a response to Morandi’s one star (the chef is a woman), it came across as sour grapes. The issues it raised, though, are important ones: why don’t female chefs in New York have more stars? Is it sexism or do female chefs just not aspire to the same heights that their male counterparts do? What’s going on?

The way I understand the star system, four star restaurants must offer everything there is to offer when it comes to fine dining–stellar service, a beautiful setting, and highly accomplished, innovative, breathtaking food. A four star restaurant must fire on all cylinders all the time; it must succeed in every way that it’s possible for a restaurant to succeed. And because four star restaurants are all so similar (Jean-Georges, Daniel, Le Bernardin) it’s easy to judge the aptness of other star appointments based on how close they are to the ultimate dining experience.

Annisa–Anita Lo’s two-starred restaurant on Barrow Street–gets very close. I ate there for the first time last night with my friends Lauren and Julie and our meal was delightful in every way a restaurant meal can be delightful. The service was exemplary, the setting was lovely, and the food was extraordinary. Take for example, this first course: Seared Foie Gras with Soup Dumplings and Jicama:

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This dish was a triumph on several levels. First of all, the execution was flawless. The soup dumplings were cooked perfectly, the proportion of foie gras to dumpling to broth was right on. Second of all, it was incredibly creative, it was innovative and exciting. It mixed the unfamiliar with the familiar, street food with fine dining. Like the end of a good book or play, it felt surprising and inevitable: I had a catharsis in my mouth.

My entree was equally thrilling–veal with veal sweetbreads:

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I’ve had sweetbreads elsewhere, but I’ve never had sweetbreads as glorious as these. They were crispy, caramelized pockets of meaty goodness. The veal was perfectly cooked, as you can see in the picture. And the cabbage provided perfect vegetal contrast; the sauce was fruity–rhubarb, if I remember correctly–and all together, eating this was a sublime experience. I was recently asked what I wanted for my last meal, and if this were what I was served I’d be happy to die. Only I’d want this for dessert:

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That’s a goat cheese cheesecake with candied beets. Look how colorful and inventive: it makes me think of Miami or Mardi Gras. And then there was a poppy seed bread pudding with lemon curd that was equally amazing. These desserts dazzled, as did the whole meal. So why doesn’t Annisa have three stars?

This is a question I want to take seriously. I don’t want to make up my mind that Annisa deserves three stars for political reasons without balancing the matter against what I know about how stars are awarded. Luckily, Frank Bruni has given us a blueprint for what makes a three star restaurant a three star restaurant in his re-review of 11 Madison Park.

He writes: “I gave Eleven Madison two stars in February 2005, and while I normally wouldn’t review a restaurant again so soon, Mr. Humm’s food — not the new table settings, not the tweaked lighting — made me do it. I can’t have beef tenderloin in a bordelaise sauce this dense with marrow — this druggy — and stay mum. I can’t cut into such impeccably roasted duck — glazed smartly, but not too sweetly, with lavender and honey — and shut up about it. That would be a dereliction of duty. It would be just plain mean.”

So, clearly, enhanced performance impresses Bruni. It comes down to the food, and that makes sense. The New York Times archive only has a little blurb about Annisa, not the full review, so it’s hard to know what it was marked down for. The blurb says: “Ms. Lo reaches far and wide for ideas and influences, without strain. Throughout, her cooking is defined by good taste and good judgment. Fish is infallible at Annisa.”

So what went wrong? Or did anything go wrong? Maybe Anita Lo doesn’t aspire to be a three-star chef. Certainly her peer, Gabrielle Hamilton, doesn’t. As quoted by Frank Bruni in his one-star review of Prune, Hamilton wrote in a Food & Wine essay: “I wanted an unassuming way to slip into the shallow end of the pool of New York City restaurants. I wanted to cook for my neighbors.”

Maybe that’s all Anita Lo wants too. Annisa certainly feels like a neighborhood joint. But my suspicion is that Ms. Lo wants more. She kicked Mario Batali’s ass on Iron Chef America and Batali is a three-star chef twice over (Babbo, Del Posto). She was a contender to cook at the White House; she was a Food & Wine Chef of the Year. She means business and she is, perhaps, the female chef best primed to shift the gender paradigm as it now exists for chefs in New York (and elsewhere): how fitting that Annisa means “women” in Arabic.

Here’s hoping that Bruni pays Annisa a visit sometime soon. It’s a perfect opportunity for him to challenge (or at least address) McNally’s claim that he’s sexist and an even better opportunity for Lo to get the extra star that she so richly deserves.